Sonny Chatrath has travel in his blood. The Indian-born travel agency owner comes from a travel industry family: An uncle is a director of Jet Airways in India. Another uncle is with Picasso Travel in Los Angeles. A cousin works at Sita World Travel, a leading India tour operator.
No surprise, then, that when in his 20s, Chatrath entered the travel industry.
He had worked for 11 years for Up and Away Travel in New York, a large ticket consolidator. At a time when veteran agents were bemoaning the direction of a profession that was becoming more difficult, Chatrath opened his own agency. It was June 2001.
He partnered with his sister, Deepa Kaur, to launch the new agency, Air-Savings, in New York. Kaur was a veteran of several agencies, but the siblings' timing couldn't have been worse. "In September, everything crashed," he recalled.
But Air-Savings' ace in the hole was, and is, its specialty: travel to India. With business and leisure travel there growing, Air-Savings, now Carlson Wagonlit Travel/Air-Savings, did not have as tough a time as other agencies.
"We didn't suffer much because, by the end of October, people were traveling again to India. [Clients] had to travel there for business," he said. Chatrath's clients also travel to India for yearly family visits, usually in groups of eight or 10.
To take advantage of his links to India and the Indian community, three years ago Chatrath moved his agency to the central New Jersey city of Edison. Since 1990, Edison's Indian population has almost tripled, from 6,000 to 17,000. And the city's average household income is $86,205.
But Chatrath was not the only agent to see the potential. There are several ethnic agencies in a 2-square-mile area of Edison known as Little India. Chatrath instead chose an office building a few miles away with Indian-owned technology and pharmaceutical companies as neighbors.
Chatrath and his sister have divided their duties: Kaur takes care of the back office and accounting, and Chatrath handles advertising, marketing and negotiations. The agency has consolidator contracts with Jet Airways, Air India, Eva and Singapore Airlines.
The agency, with $2.2 million in annual sales and four full-time staff, advertises on Zee TV, a Dish Network channel targeting ethnic Indians. About 90% of Air-Savings' clientele is from the Indian community; 25% of that is business travel.
"Corporate travel to India is a totally different ballgame than selling corporate travel elsewhere," Chatrath said. "The average hotel room is $300 a night, and corporate travelers stay a week, so there's a decent commission. Business-class airline tickets are about $5,000, and we get overrides, so it's lucrative."
But he said he also hoped to make a name as a specialist in travel to India outside the ethnic market. To do so, he said he might change the agency's name or introduce another company name to reflect the expanded role. He has already signed on as a Carlson Wagonlit associate, in 2007, to appeal to a broader base "with a name to give us more credibility," he said.
"In the beginning, our mission was to establish a brand. We advertised in the New York Times and Time Out New York. But it's a tough industry, and, because we were looked at as an ethnic agency, most people thought we were a bucket shop. That isn't a pleasant term."
However, as he moves beyond that, Chatrath sees a growing market for tourism with a spiritual side, with people showing interest in traveling to India for yoga and meditation. He's using family connections and knowledge of the country in developing packages.
"My family is in Agra [the site of the Taj Mahal], and I want people to know the India that Indians know. For example, if a client wants to have a dress or suit made in India, I can have him picked up at the airport and then taken to the tailor that my family has used for years.
"We can explain about the hotel rating system in India and how it's very important to choose a hotel above three stars because anything below is probably not appropriate for most Americans."
Taking advantage of the interest in Bollywood movies, he's considering putting together a package in which clients watch a Bollywood extravaganza being filmed and perhaps take part. "I think there are people who would jump at the chance to see the actors up close," he said.
To contact reporter Laura Del Rosso, send e-mail to [email protected].
Perfect Itinerary10 days of history and culture in India
The following history and culture tour of Rajasthan in northern India, with private car and driver, was arranged by Sonny Chatrath, owner of Carlson Wagonlit Travel/Air-Savings Travel, Edison, N.J.
Day 1: Arrive at the capital, Delhi. You are greeted with a traditional Indian welcome and escorted to the Taj Palace Hotel.
Day 2: Morning at leisure. In the afternoon, tour Old Delhi, including the Red Fort, Raj Ghat, Ashoka Pilla and the mile-long Chandni Chowk Bazaar.
Day 3: Tour New Delhi. Drive along Rajpath, the capital's broadest avenue, to view the Parliament, the president's house and India gate. Visit the Humayun's tomb, Qutab Minar and Birla temple. Afternoon drive to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Check in at the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.
Day 4: Ascend to the mountain fortress of Amber, riding atop decorated and painted elephants. Enjoy an afternoon tour of Jaipur and visit Hawa Mahal, the City Palace and an ancient observatory.
Day 5: Morning drive to Agra, visiting the abandoned ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri en route. In Agra, visit the 16th century Agra Fort and take in the magnificent Taj Mahal in the warm glow of sunset. Overnight at Taj View Hotel.
Day 6: Take a morning train to Jhansi. Continue by car to Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its large collection of Hindu temples. En route visit Orcha, a medieval city frozen in the 17th century. Overnight at the Taj Chandela Hotel.
Day 7: Visit the western and eastern group of Khajuraho's temples before flying to Varanasi (Benares), the holiest city of the region. Visit the stupas and ruins at Sarnath, a Buddhist pilgrimage site and the scene of Buddha's first sermon. In the evening, an astrologer will read your palm. Overnight at the Taj Ganges Hotel.
Day 8: Enjoy a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, followed by a walking tour of Varanasi's old city. Fly to Kathmandu, capital of Nepal. In the afternoon, visit Durbar Square, Temple of the Living Goddess and Swaymbhunath, a holy Buddhist site. Overnight at the Annapurna Hotel.
Day 9: Tour the charming town of Bhaktapur, the Hindu shrine of Pashupathinath and the Buddhist site of Bodhnath, followed by an afternoon tour of the city of Patan and the handicrafts center. See an evening presentation of Nepalese folk dances.
Day 10: Fly to Delhi to connect to your flight home.